The Pennsylvania Game Commission could vote to remove bald eagles from the state's list of "threatened" species this fall.

The commission said Wednesday that its Bureau of Wildlife Management is recommending the birds be upgraded to "protected" status because their numbers, and the number of places they can be found in the state, have been steadily increasing.

Bureau biologist Doug Gross said 266 nesting pairs have been confirmed so far this year. Researchers found 237 pairs last year.

"This year marks just another high point in the spectacular and widespread recovery of bald eagles in Pennsylvania, and it’s clear that the definition of a threatened species no longer describes them accurately,” Gross said.

The birds can be taken off the "threatened list" if four criteria are met: There must be 150 active nests statewide; successful pairs in at least 40 of the state's 67 counties; a 60 percent success rate of known nests; and an average of at least 1.2 eaglets fledged in each successful nest.

Three of those criteria have already been met for a five-year span, and eagles in 2013 will exceed for a fifth-straight year the requirement of nesting successfully in at least 40 counties, Gross said. Nest success is still being calculated.

"It seems that each passing year writes a new chapter in the story of the bald eagle’s success in Pennsylvania and the latest numbers, and the recommendation to delist the eagle as a state threatened species, is the best news yet," said Carl Roe, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's executive director. "But the story isn’t over. Pennsylvania has plenty of good bald-eagle habitat that’s not currently being used by eagles."

If the bald eagle is de-listed, state officials said the bird will continue to be protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (the Eagle Act), the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Lacey Act.

Under the Eagle Act, those who harm or disturb eagles are subject to a civil penalty of up to one year in jail or a $5,000 fine for their first offense, and criminal convictions can result in fines as high as $250,000, officials said.

The resident bald eagle is a popular bird at the Lehigh Valley Zoo in Lehigh County.

"It's a bird that was injured and would not be able to survive in the wild any longer," explained Richard Rosevear, the general curator.

For the last four years, folks have had the chance to see this bird of prey up close.

"They're big impressive birds," Rosevear said. "They're raptors. They're hunters. They're kind of at the top of their food chain."

But 30 years ago, the future looked bleak for bald eagles. Statewide, there were only three nesting pairs, and they were all located in one county.

"We know that people are pretty much responsible for the demise of the bald eagle in Pennsylvania," said Rosevear, adding that it was a combination of widespread killing and pesticide pollution that decimated the numbers. "They were just not successfully reproducing, and the population just declined until they were almost extinct in Pennsylvania."